By Chris Bernotas
What is the purpose of a warm up in the band (or any) classroom? Students come into our classrooms from a variety of places, both physically and mentally. Maybe they are coming from lunch, or a science lab, or home. The fact is, not every student comes into the music room with the sole focus of creating and communicating through music.
I believe that the first ten (or even twenty) minutes of class are far more important than even the literature. Is that a crazy thought? Maybe it is, but I have always had the belief that if students are prepared properly, physically and mentally, they will absorb the literature more easily and with more meaning.
In preparation for each of our ensemble rehearsals we do much more than a single scale for a warm up, but let’s take a second and analyze one role of using a scale as part of your warm up.
“Here we go, Bb scale, whole notes. Ready? Go!” I admit it; I have been guilty of using this scale warm up method and honestly, is starting with a scale in whole notes a bad thing? No, it isn’t. Is a routine that students can expect when they come into the room a bad thing? Nope. What is so bad about it then? Answer: Performing a scale in whole notes without purpose.
It isn’t that the teacher doesn’t know the purpose, but often we forget to share our secrets with our students. It is called assumed knowledge – we sometimes assume students know the reason for performing each exercise.
Quite often they do not know and will obediently perform as you ask without knowing why it is important. For a student, warming up might simply mean heating up their instrument. Really! Ask them! They will tell you.
The Bb scale will take on a whole new meaning if you share with students that in addition to getting their bodies prepared (by paying attention to their breathing and posture) and their facial muscles prepared (by focusing on proper embouchure), they are also warming up their minds.
We are all well aware of critical thinking and problem solving – going beyond surface learning and understanding. Are students aware that they do this everyday in music? And every time they are making a sound?
When you share the secret with students that when they play long tones in the Bb scale they should be listening to and analyzing the following:
- Quality of the sound – is it a good characteristic sound? If not, change it! This is the problem solving part. Students need to experiment to change their sound, as a teacher, try to learn to trust their judgment.
- Balance within their section – Are you blending well with the performers on either side of you? With the section? With the band overall? Have you, as the teacher, shared with your students how you would like them to play in balance? What exactly does playing in balance mean? Maybe you know what you are looking for, but do your students?
- Tuning – is your sound in tune? Do your students know what “in tune” is? Do they think it is just something that a machine tells them? Do they know that you need to tune every note? And that each instrument and each person plays differently and they need to be aware of tuning 100% of the time they are making a sound? Tuning to one note is merely a reference. We know that, but do our students? Adjusting pitch is problem solving.
- Articulation – How does each note begin? Is it an accent? Are notes slurred from note to note? Be sure to let them know!
- Phrasing – If the scale is in whole notes, where should they breathe? Is it staggered breathing?
- Dynamics – Is the scale going to be one dynamic? That’s fine, but tell them!
There are many ways to warm up in the band classroom and the Bb scale (or any other, try Concert C for a whole new opportunity to work on critical thinking and problem solving!) is just one of them.
The important thing is to share the why with our students. Too often we take for granted that our students already know the why and in reality it is our responsibility to be sure that they know the purpose of what we ask them to do.
If students understand the reason for the exercise, they will perform it with more meaning and the end result will be far more beneficial to your rehearsal and to their success.